‘Complete Howard Hawks’ at Film Archive celebrates director who could do anything
Howard Hawks may be the greatest American filmmaker you never really think about. His name should be right up there in the conversation with Coppola, Chaplin, Scorsese, Tarantino, Ford and Welles, but rarely is. His output – dozens of films, most during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s Golden Era of Hollywood – is an astounding list, filled with iconic stars, yet Hawks never won an Oscar and was nominated only once as director, for “Sergeant York” (1941). Beginning Friday, the Harvard Film Archive will commemorate Hawks’ incredible career with “The Complete Howard Hawks.” The slate of 40 films will be exhibited throughout the summer, concluding Aug. 30 with “Monkey Business” (1952).
The classics include “Red River” (1948, screening Aug. 4 and 11), “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953, June 15 and 23), “Bringing Up Baby” (1938, June 15-16) and “The Big Sleep” (1946, June 29-30), peppered with Hollywood A-listers such as James Cagney, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe and even a young James Caan. “Sergeant York” screens Aug. 12.
Hawks had a pretty rich life. He grew up in a family that possessed a small industrial fortune, attended Phillips Exeter Academy and earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell. His interest in film came when his family transplanted from the Midwest to Pasadena, California. After a stint in the U.S. Air Force during World War I and some dabbling as a gambler and race car driver, Hawks fell in with the likes of Cecil B. DeMille and Douglas Fairbanks. Hawks made several silent films in the 1920s, including the hedonistic “A Girl in Every Port” (1928, July 8), the Arabian-Parisian romance “Fazil” (1928, July 22) – both to be screened with a live accompaniment by Robert Humphreville – and his debut about a woman coming to terms with her sudden blindness, “The Road to Glory” (1926, not on the calendar and not to be confused with the 1936 war movie of the same title by Hawks that plays Aug. 16).
Many of Hawks’ works mirrored his life. He made several war films with a focus on aviation, including “Today We Live” (1933, Aug. 24), “Only Angels Have Wings” (1939, June 14 and 16), “Dawn Patrol” (1930, July 13 and 28) and the chaotic post-Pearl Harbor bombing epic, “Air Force” (1943, July 14 and 21), as well car racing dramas such as “The Crowd Roars” (1932, Aug. 19) starring Cagney and “Red Line 7000” (1965, Aug. 23).
Hawks’ diverse, genre-spanning slate included crime dramas (“Scarface,” 1932, June 29 and July 7), noir (“The Big Sleep”), romantic comedies (“His Girl Friday,” 1940, June 24 and Aug. 30), westerns (“Rio Bravo,” 1959, July 26 and Aug. 10) where he was often competing for audience share against friend John Ford, and a foray into science fiction (“The Thing From Another World,” 1951, July 13 and 21, from the same source material as John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi horror film “The Thing”).
Personal favorites include the adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s pulp noir “The Big Sleep” which boasts a screenwriting credit from Willam Faulkner, “Bringing Up Baby,” which I feel is the greatest rom-com of all time – but, then again, I wanted to be a paleontologist growing up – and “Scarface,” with Paul Muni setting the standard for classic bad guy performances. Then there’s the classic showdown “High Noon,” which paired Gary Cooper (one of Hawks’ two longtime collaborators, the other being Cary Grant) as the sheriff with an “X” on his back and Grace Kelly, and the grim and dark “Rio Bravo,” which would become the basis for another Carpenter film, the 1976 urban crime thriller, “Assault on Precinct 13.” Angling back toward the light is the newsroom romp “His Girl Friday.” Perhaps one reason Hawks is left out when it comes to talking greats is his appetite for a smorgasbord of subjects and his quietly competent compositions – for better or worse, you don’t feel the filmmaker in there trying to make a splash or leave his signature, as you do with many star directors. Hawks’ films have always been about narrative and character and letting the combination make the magic that pulls in the audience. It’s something he did repeatedly.
“The Complete” series at the HFA was the brainchild of programmer David Pendleton, who sadly passed in 2017. Previous series have focused on Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock.
Films and times, tickets and other information are on the HFA website.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.